FAQ About Psychologists, Psychology and Psychotherapy

(adapted with permission from psyris.com)

What is psychology?

Psychology is a scientific discipline—the study of human behavior. In general, psychology is concerned with how people perceive the world around them and how they react to it, how they grow and how they learn, and how they relate to others and function in groups. In other words, psychology is about how people think, feel, and behave.

As a profession, the practice of psychology involves the application of knowledge. We take what we learn from scholarship and research and apply that knowledge to the problems faced by groups and individuals. Most people encounter our discipline through the work of a clinical psychologist, a professional who is concerned with helping people solve problems of living or resolve mental health problems.

What is a psychologist?

In a university, a psychologist is a professor who teaches or conducts research in the field of psychology.

Outside the university, the title "Psychologist" is legally reserved for persons practicing psychology and licensed by the State. (Examples of other titles that are legally reserved for licensed persons are "Attorney" and "Physician".) Licensing protects the public from individuals who might call themselves psychologists or practice psychology without proper qualifications.

Psychologists must have a doctoral degree. Most psychologists have a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) in the field of psychology or a Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology). Others will qualify with an Ed.D. (Doctor of Education).

In addition to a doctorate, a psychologist must also complete a specific number of hours of supervised training. Generally, this will involve two to three years working in clinics or hospitals before obtaining a degree, and afterwards at least one additional year of intense, full-time training. Psychologists must also pass state licensing examinations.

After graduation from college, it takes a minimum of five to six years to become a psychologist. It can often take six to eight years. Most psychologists have produced a doctoral dissertation, which is an original research project and a book length discussion of that research.

After the license is obtained, one may use the title "psychologist " and may practice using the methods, techniques and knowledge of our field.

What do psychologists do?

Psychologists have many skills and provide many different types of services.

Clinical Psychologists provide counseling and psychotherapy. They work with people who have life adjustment problems, and also with those who have emotional disorders or mental illness. They provide treatment for people of all ages and to families and to groups. Psychologists provide treatment for depression, anxiety, phobias, panic disorders, eating disorders, stress related problems, relationship problems, and severe mental disorders.

Clinical Psychologists also provide diagnostic assessment or "testing" services. Using interviews, questionnaires, and measurement tools, they can chart an individual's skills, personality features and personality style, emotional status and emotional style, or problems they may be having in adjusting to life. These measurements are often essential for clarifying the diagnosis of a mental illness or an addiction.

Educational Psychologists, School Psychologists, and Clinical Psychologists provide "psychoeducational" testing. With the use of IQ tests and tests of academic aptitude and achievement, they can identify academic strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes these tools are used to identify "gifted" students, and sometimes they are used to identify specific learning disorders or developmental learning problems. Evaluations relating to learning issues also frequently involve the assessment of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit, Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Health Psychologists and Clinical Psychologists seek to understand the relationship between medical complaints and psychological factors. They assist in preparing patients to cope with surgery and to adjust to medical problems. They work with patients who are having difficulty meeting the social and emotional demands of their medical treatment. They also provide treatment to individuals whose medical problems are related to psychological and emotional factors, or who are suffering from chronic pain.

Neuropyschologists diagnose mental and behavioral problems that are related to brain injuries. Using precise tests of mental functioning, they can determine how the brain is functioning and how and where it might have been injured as a result of trauma.

Forensic psychologists provide consultation to Courts and attorneys in all different types of legal proceedings. Many work as experts in the area of criminal law. Others provide expertise in personal injury suits, sexual harassment cases, child custody matters, and workers compensation cases.

Organizational Psychologists focus on the productivity of groups and individuals in the workplace. They work to improve the functioning of organizations, and to promote the health of individuals within the organization. They also conduct research on "human factors" or the interaction between people and machines.

Sports Psychologists
provide training to enhance the performance of teams and individual competitors.

Psychologists work to understand and improve the functioning of human beings at home, at school, at work, at play, in their religious pursuits, and in society in general. Psychologists are involved in every aspect of human thought, feeling and behavior.

Can psychologists prescribe medication?

In California, psychologists cannot prescribe medications. However, psychologists do have a specialty in psychiatric medications that they use in collaboration with primary care and other doctors to help patients.  All psychologists can help their patients by identifying the need for medication, coordinating care with the prescribing psychiatrist, monitoring the effectiveness of medications as well as their side effects, and solving problems patients might have with taking medications regularly.

A few states do allow psychologists with specialized training to prescribe medications and the American Psychological Association is lobbying to expand prescription privileges to psychologists in California and other states.

Are all therapists psychologists?

No. There are certain services that only a psychologist can provide, but there are other licensed professionals who also provide therapy and counselling, and whose "scope of practice" overlaps with that of psychology.

Psychiatrists are physicians specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of mental and emotional disorders, typically with the use of medications. There are a number of mental and emotional conditions for which medications are a recommended, sometimes necessary part of treatment. In most  cases, people receiving medications will also want to be seen by a psychotherapist to learn more about their illness, how to monitor their symptoms, and how manage symptom flare-ups.

Primary care physicians also routinely provide mental health care, usually for common forms of depression, stress, or anxiety. Sometimes they will provide brief counseling, and often times they will prescribe medications. When specialized care is needed, a family physician is a helpful source of referrals.

Licensed Clinical Social Workers are identified as an LCSW. There are actually many different types of social workers, but only a licensed social worker (LCSW) with a Master's degree in Social Work can provide clinical services in independent practice. LCSWs provide therapy for all types of conditions, but they are distinguished by their training in dealing with practical problems of living.

Marriage Family Therapists are identified as an MFT or MFCC. Their license requires a Master's degree. Marriage counselors provide assistance to troubled children and families, and to individuals coping with troubled relationships. The scope of practice for marriage counselors is often broadly interpreted, but strictly speaking, they provide treatment for mental and emotional disturbances only when they relate to issues within a marriage or a relationship, or with a child.

Registered Nurses are valued and important members of most mental health treatment teams, and also provide assistance to distressed individuals as they interact with them in medical offices, hospitals and clinics.

Pastoral Counselors and Clergy meet many needs but may or may not have specialized training in psychotherapy.

Are all therapists with a Ph.D. also psychologists?

No. The Doctor of Philosophy degree is an academic award of the highest level—awarded in many different fields—but the degree is not enough to qualify someone to become a psychologist.

Some marriage family therapists and social workers do earn a Ph.D., and so can use the title "Doctor," but are not trained or licensed as a psychologist. Some therapists have Ph.D. degrees in fields that have nothing to do with psychology. "Dr. Laura" is a good example. She is not a psychologist and she is a Doctor of something that is unrelated to psychology.

Is a "psychotherapist" the same as a psychologist?

No. Marriage counselors and social workers often use the title "psychotherapist," but they are not psychologists unless they have a psychology license.

What is psychotherapy?

Psychotherapy is a planned activity intended to help people make changes they desire in order to lead happier, more constructive lives. Psychotherapy can address severe mental illness (such as depression, addiction, or bipolar disorder), problems with everyday living and relationships, or concerns about personal growth. Just as in medicine, psychologists treat problems using scientifically-based methods or treatments. Which treatment is best depends on the kind of problem and usually there are several treatments to choose from. In all treatments, people learn how to change patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving in ways that improve the quality of their life.

Does psychotherapy work?

Yes. Research consistently shows that psychotherapy helps. Consider this excerpt from the executive summary of the U.S. Surgeon General's report on mental health in 1999:
"The review of research supports two main findings: The efficacy of mental health treatments is well documented, and a range of treatments exists for most mental disorders. On the strength of these findings, the single, explicit recommendation of the report is to seek help if you have a mental health problem or think you have symptoms of a mental disorder." (emphasis in original)
Researchers have found that the average person in treatment is doing better than 80% of those not getting treatment (Smith, Glass, & Miller, 1980) and that many people experience some relief in as little as 8 sessions (Howard, Kopta, Krause, & Orlinsky, 1986).

Where can I learn more about psychotherapy?

The California Board of Psychology publishes an excellent informational pamphlet on psychotherapy that is available in multiple languages and there are inexpensive books that will help you get the most out of psychotherapy. See our Resources page for more links.

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